There is probably no other metropolitan city in the world that can boast of as many indigenous sacred sites within its boundaries as can Sydney. Yet, many Australians are completely oblivious to this amazing collection of sacred and historic art, partly because most of these sites do not enjoy world heritage listing or even a listing on a park map. Having lived close to bush in northern Sydney, I feel privileged to have discovered many of the sites around here including the special rock and cave art engravings at Kuringai Chase National Park as well as those at Yengo National Park where I used to camp.
Mark, a colleague at work who can trace part of his family tree back to Aboriginal ancestry has been actively working with his cousin Evan to document some of the lesser known sites around here. He has organised for 10 of us (all workmates) to visit a couple of hidden sites around the Wiseman’s Ferry area to share time as a team in a unique way.
We meet at Maroota and walk to a rock outcropping to introduce ourselves to Evan and to share our reasons for being there. Since we all work in the field of Catchment Management we share a connection to the land and feel happy to be here enjoying a day away from work and the busyness of our lives. Evan explains that his Aboriginality is traced back to an Aboriginal woman and goes back 5 generations. However, it is not this blood connection but rather the lessons he learnt as he followed his dad around - a park ranger in the Blue Mountains – that left an indelible mark of appreciation for the natural environment around him. His sense of belonging to the Aboriginal culture comes from being with Aboriginal elders and embracing their culture rather than from this connection he has traced back 5 generations. It is embracing a spirituality that stems from a connection to the land. I feel I can relate to this, as I have often felt a sense of deep connection to both the landscape as well as water. I’ve also embraced bits of culture from the many different places I have visited around the world which often lends to me introducing myself as a global citizen.
The wind whistles through the trees and the rustling of leaves is the only sound we hear as we sit on a rock outcrop. Bathed in glorious sunshine on a perfect winter’s day we listen to Evan talking about a culture most of us know very little about. He explains how the old people operate in a “state of feel”, which requires plugging in to a very different part of your brain. In fact this is the state we are all born in but sadly as we grow up we are taught and often required to place more emphasis on facts and figures and rational thinking. We seem to lose the art of trusting our feelings and of relying on intuition so today is all about learning a new way of breathing and walking. It is actually a process of unlearning all of the lessons we have been taught through much of our lives. We practice the technique of walking gently, perfected by the old people – a technique which has helped them preserve their joints well into old age.
Living in Sydney, our world is one of sensory overload, of noise and of clutter. Most people are caught in a rat race where upgrading to the next best thing becomes an overwhelming obsession. Evan explains that the more spiritual you become, the less you ‘need’ possessions and the more pleasure you gain from the simple and subtle things in life. He asks us to feel the texture of the ground…and as we rub our hands on the granite rock we are sitting on I feel the stress of my everyday life slowly start to evaporate…
The patterns of life for the Aboriginal peoples were laid down during a time called the early Dreaming or Dreamtime and those patterns were based on a heightened awareness of yourself and of the land. Once you have mastered this art, everything else follows. You enter a happy, relaxed, blissful state where your sense of inner peace and awareness of life helps your connections and relationships with the world around you.
It is time to visit the sacred sites but first we must complete the rituals that will purify our spirits. The first of these rituals is the smoking ceremony. We are not lighting a fire today but rather using our imagination to create one. Evan explains that imagination is creation and the most important part of any ceremony. As we dance, we feel the smoke drifting over us and hope this ceremony will take away any negativity that will cause trouble for the people around us and block our ability to learn. It is this negativity or bad spirit trouble that restricts our performance and prevents a deeper connection to life.
Most of the sacred sites also include little water holes at which the old people connected to country and The Dreaming before entering the site. This is similar to the many rituals found in Christian, Muslim and other religions where purification with water precedes worship. The rock engravings are also known as ‘pecked petroglyphs’ and are made by striking the rock with a pointed stone or other sharp implement. The images cannot be looked at in isolation but must be read in the context of the environment they are in and in relation to other images. They were always placed strategically with respect to the environment.
Water on the rock glistens in the sun, enabling the engraved figure to come to life. I have read that some Aboriginal people believe Baiame created the earth and gave the people their traditions, culture and songs. He created the first initiation site where a boy reached manhood and when he completed this he returned to the sky, hence the reference to Sky Hero or Sky Father. It is believed that he is married to an emu (Birran-gnulu), with whom he has a son Daramulun. Today, we have come to see an inscription of Baiame and Daramulun (see left)…shown on the rock with internal lines running down his body which indicates the sacred Rainbow Serpent.
A songline leads to another sacred site close by. It is said these songlines mark the route that the creator beings traversed during the Dreaming. The continent of Australia contains an extensive system of songlines, from a few kilometres to hundreds of kilometres through lands of many different Indigenous peoples who may speak very different languages and have diverse cultural traditions.
We follow the songline to another site where we find an emu with a stash of eggs. In the old days, aboriginal people would navigate the land by repeating the words of the song, which would describe the location of waterholes and other natural landmarks. Today, we would call this our GPS system!
Evan explains the significance of each engraving and relates stories about the emu and other bush fauna. We take it all in and break for lunch. I wonder what it must be like to have lived a nomadic life, relying on the abundance of the land for each meal, sheltering from the vagaries of each season in rock caves and other shelters.
After lunch we drive to Canoelands, so named because it was an area in which Aborigines collected bark for building canoes. We hike to more rock sites…including a visit to an image of the Earth mother in creation form.
However, the piece de resistance of the day is a secluded cave with an incredibly well preserved collection of cave art. As we scramble down the rock face to a little ledge and peer inside the cave, we are all astounded by what we find.
The cave is decorated with many images as well as hand stencils. Aboriginal people created hand stencils by putting ochre into their mouth and blowing it across their hand which rested on the rock surface. The ochre reacted chemically with the rock and sunk into the surface in a manner similar to what ink does on paper.
Sadly, much of the cave art around Sydney has been destroyed by the onset of development or through vandalism by people totally unaware of its cultural and historic significance. What is left of this incredible collection of cave art is being destroyed by erosion caused by wind or rain or by the ocean. While the art needs to be preserved there are strict rules in Aboriginal culture about who can preserve it. Originally, only the Spirit Doctors from the tribe that created the art could supervise its maintenance. Evan explains the significance of the images and we listen entranced by the stories of the past.
If you are interested in spending a day on this walkabout or other trips to the Blue Mountains check out Evan’s website: http://www.bluemountainswalkabout.com/
The sun is close to setting and it is time to say goodbye. It has been an amazing day of learning a little more about the culture and beliefs of the first Australians. As we say goodbye to Evan I reflect on these words by Henry David Thoreau:
“The Indian stands free and unconstrained in Nature, is her inhabitant and not her guest, and wears her easily and gracefully. But the civilized man has the habits of the house. His house is a prison”.